The tribe or the outsider?

Water Lily is a young Cherokee girl whose only dream is to work her parent’s Georgia farm, but she is troubled by the incoming settlers as they move west, stealing what has been under the Cherokee’s care for centuries.

Anxious for land and family of his own, Italian sailor, Jerrod Santini stumbles into the middle of a plot by local white settlers to push the Cherokee from their homes and taking the silver and gems for themselves.

United in their quest to learn who is behind the threats, Jerrod and Water Lily find themselves falling in love, a joining that could bring the two opposing sides together or the catalyst that starts a war.

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Chapter 1

Pine Log, Georgia, Summer 1820

Jerrod Santini tugged the leather reins in his gloved hands toward the right. Following the directional signal, his horse carefully stepped on the rutted trail, easing the wagon along the narrow ledge curving into the side of the mountain. Jerrod leaned out and shook his head.

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"Keep us as close as you can to the wall, Cheddar. I really don't want to end up way down there with you and the wagon on top of me." He stared at the valley floor far below them. If he were to guess, it was a thousand-foot drop, if not more. "We could get lucky, though. There are enough trees between us and the ground down there to stop our fall."

Cheddar snuffled and shook his head but ambled on his way until the wagon turned into a clearing.

The path continued to widened as it meandered through the valley between the two peaks. Just ahead, the rough-cut dirt road disappeared again into the dense forest. As they passed underneath the ancient trees, Jerrod glanced around for what seemed like the thousandth time since arriving in this country and couldn't believe his good luck. The land he purchased was magnificent. More than he had ever dreamed of having for himself.

Growing up on his family's olive farm in Italy, he'd learned the different native trees at a young age, and he'd begun doing the very same thing the moment he landed in America. He now recognized several species of juniper and pine, the greenery drooping from thick branches like the cypress trees down in New Orleans. Overhead, patches of deep red and golden leaves were an upside-down sea of color, not unlike the blue-greens in the ocean he’d left behind.

He flicked his wrist, urging his horse to go faster. "Come on, Cheddar, pick up the pace. I want to get back to building before I run out of daylight." No sooner had the words left his mouth than the wagon lurched to one side. The back end slid sideways and his supplies shifted, forcing the contraption into a precarious tilt just off the path.

Jerrod let out a sigh of disgust and jumped from the seat to see how much damage had been done. Luckily, after checking the axle and wheels, everything was still intact...just mired in mud. Using his shirt sleeve to wipe away the sweat beading on his forehead, he pulled in a deep breath, the heavy scent of pine and cedar filling his nostrils and calming his nerves. He loved everything about the Appalachians, northern Georgia especially. He couldn't believe there was a prettier spot on the earth, and in his twenty-five years, he had visited many places. Born on his family's small farm near the medieval hamlet of Vagliagli, Italy, he'd lived with his grandfather until the old man's heart gave out. At the young age of twelve, Jarrod left the failed farm to seek his fortune and wound up working as a sailor.

Sailing from port to port on different ships—some legitimate, most pirate—he saved every penny he could and had amassed a small fortune for someone so young. He loved the sea, but ever since leaving Italy, his dream had been to purchase his own land and settle down. The thought of owning his own place where he could bring a wife and raise their children was a source of pride for him. One instilled by his grandfather.

He was lonely and missed having family around him. He would give just about anything to hear his grandfather's voice. One thing Jerrod never wanted any part of again, though, was the poverty. Their lives in Italy had been difficult. Working the small farm and tending to the olive grove from sunup to sundown had been backbreaking work, but Jerrod liked digging in the ground, the earthy fragrance of the newly turned soil filling his nostrils. To him, the scent was more aromatic than flowers. Unfortunately, no matter how long he and his grandfather worked the land, coaxing every last olive from the trees, their meager life only worsened.

He patted Cheddar's muscled shoulder. The gentle horse pressed his head against Jerrod's neck, the coarse hairs tickling the tender skin. He chuckled and wrapped his arm around the horse's head. "You'll just have to wait here and guard the supplies for me now that the wagon's good and stuck. I'll go get the shovel and return before you've even had a chance to miss me." He scratched the white streak between Cheddar's large brown eyes. "Aaron warned me about the hardships of being a landowner. Guess this was what he was talking about, huh, boy?"

After docking in Savannah, he gave his notice to the ship's owner, Aaron Deveraux, who he considered a good friend. Aaron, of course, tried to convince him to reconsider and stay on as captain. His argument was that he was getting on in years and Jerrod was the only one he trusted not to run his ship aground. Jerrod knew better though. Aaron was only twenty years his senior and believed he was keeping Jerrod from making a mistake. He felt as if he let Aaron down, but he finally understood why his grandfather had held on to a failing olive tree farm. Like him, Jerrod also wanted a legacy he could pass down to his sons and daughters. He wanted to leave something of himself—something he worked hard for—that his descendants could be proud of.

"Ho, there! You! Stop right there—right where you are!" an angry male voice yelled from somewhere in the forest ahead of him. Jerrod's boot heel came down on a patch of wet leaves and skidded to a stop.

"He told you to stop, you dirty squaw!" a second voice yelled. A flock of birds took off from their perches overhead, their angry chittering filling the air at the abrupt noise.

Jerrod realized the men weren't talking to him, but he couldn't help but wonder who they were talking to. In the week he'd spent in these woods, he hadn't seen another soul. The clearing where he'd begun building his home was about forty yards ahead of him, but the voices seemed to be off to his right. A heavy quiet settled over the forest. He held still, listening to sounds of snapping wood and scuffling. A low grunt sounded then a woman yelled. Jerrod took off in a jog, hoping he was headed in the right direction.

One of the men growled, and a loud slap ricocheted through the air like the sound of a gunshot. Jerrod picked up speed, running as fast as he dared while darting between the trees. More scuffling and grunts led him to an unsettling scene. He slowed, dropping into a squat behind a thick bush as he watched two men tie up a struggling Indian woman. The man wrapping the rope around her was short and stocky and wore faded military pants. His boots were muddy, and his beard was long and overgrown, hiding much of his face.

The second man stood with his back to Jerrod. Only when the woman was trussed up and still did he stuff a dirty bandana in her mouth. He reached into his pocket and pulled something out. He gave it a sharp flick, and Jerrod realized it was another bandana, which he tied around the

woman's head.

This man also wore faded gray pants, but his were cleaner. He was tall and thin, standing erect with the presence of a military bearing such as a sergeant or someone higher. He also spoke in a clipped voice as he barked out orders to the other man, giving credence to Jerrod's summation.

"You're not my captain anymore, Thorton, so knock it off. I'm workin' as fast as I can. I didn't sign on to abuse no woman...even if she is just an Injun'."

"We aren't abusing her, Enders, just making sure she doesn't run off and give us away. Last thing Clark needs or wants is people nosing in on our find. We'll do what's necessary to make sure we all come out smelling like roses. Now, make sure you tied the knot securely—and not like the last time. Took us half a day to round up that annoying donkey."

"What do you think we'll make on this one? It better not be like the last take—we got robbed on that one. I know fer a fact we pulled twice as much silver from that cave cuz I was the one doin' the pullin'! By my calculations, we got about half of what we earned. Clark's gettin' greedy."

The man named Thorton grunted and turned just enough for Jerrod to get a quick glimpse of his face. The ex-military captain reminded him of a snake with deep, close-set eyes, a hooked nose, and lips so thin they all but disappeared. His light blue eyes were cold as ice as they scanned the area. Jerrod filed the distinctive face to memory. He'd met many men like this one—most brigands and pirates—and all deadly. A quick movement behind the men caught Jerrod's attention. Standing behind a jutting outcrop of the bulging mountainside were the men's horses, hobbled together and munching at the tall grasses growing in thick bunches.

Enders let the woman's body fall to the ground. He walked a few steps toward the rock wall behind them and squatted. To Jerrod's surprise, his arm disappeared into a hole, partially hidden by a small boulder that had fallen to the base of the mountain, and pulled out a tied burlap sack. Dropping it on the ground, he pulled out four more while Thorton tied two each behind their saddles.

Jerrod knew he had to do something...but what? He ran through several scenarios, each one ending in someone getting hurt...namely him. He didn't like any of them, but he couldn't just leave her. With winter just around the corner, he needed every day in between to finish his house and barn. Getting injured would set him back to spring, and he didn't have the immediate funds available to keep renting the room in town and finish building, as well as buy all the horse and cattle stock he'd need to get his business up and running. He glanced at the young woman, who still hadn't moved. He let out a sigh; he had no other option. He wouldn't be able to live with himself knowing he hadn't done anything to help her.

Creeping forward, he pulled the knife from the special pocket he'd sewn to the inside of his boot and stepped out from his hidden position behind the thick trunk of the pine tree. He tightened his grip on the seal-bone handle.

"I don't think you two belong here. This is my land, and I don't recall giving either of you permission to be here."

The men exchanged a startled glance, and the taller one spun in a half-circle to face him. With one foot in the stirrup, the shorter man all but fell from his saddle. He jumped back up, pistol in hand and glared at Jerrod.

"Captain, seems to me this place is almighty busy for bein' off in the mountains, don't you think?"

Thorton nodded, his head tilting to one side as he studied the situation. Slowly, his thin lips curled in a distasteful grin. "I don't believe this man has all his faculties, Enders. All he's got is a knife to our pistols." Thorton raised his other hand, which held a revolver in its grip. "Not much of a threat in my book."

Without a second thought or anything to lose, other than his and the girl's lives, Jerrod threw the knife, which struck Thorton in the shoulder. With a grunt, Thorton pulled it out and tossed it to the ground and fired his pistol. A hard tug tore through Jerrod's leg. Just as he started to fall, another ball hit him in the chest, pushing him backward. He fell, landing on his back, staring up into the leafy canopy overhead.

Regret poured into him. There were so many things he'd yet to do and experience. He needed to finish his cabin and buy horses. After seeing the Arabians racing across the Sahara, he wanted to raise his own horses... He watched a hawk circling in the darkening blue sky above. The bird let out a soulful cry then veered off to one side and vanished beyond the tree canopy. Jerrod blinked as pain overwhelmed him, filling his thoughts...except one. He'd never get to hold his child.

From the creaking of leather, he knew the two men had climbed into their saddles, and Enders' muffled voice disappeared under the sound of the horses' hooves, which quickly faded away as they left the clearing. Jerrod lay there, pain from the two wounds swamping him until he could barely breathe.

Through a break in the tree canopy, another hawk, or maybe the same one as before, made a lazy circle overhead then flew lower until the majestic bird landed on a thick branch nearby. Jerrod turned his head to see it better and noticed the woman was gone. He swallowed the chuckle in his throat. Just from that minor movement, the fiery burn in his chest increased. He pulled in shallow breaths as his vision darkened, the outer edges swimming until everything seemed to blur.

"You just had to go and get yourself killed, didn't you, mister? And for what? They weren't going to hurt me. Leave me for dead, yes, but hurt me...no."

Just before everything faded from view, the sweetest face he had ever seen appeared above him. The woman's long, black hair flowed down around her head like a dark waterfall. Large golden brown eyes as large as any doe's stared down at him. Her pink lips were full and pursed in a disgusted pout as she studied the wound in his chest.

“Weren’t you tied up?”

“Of course I was. What self-respecting Cherokee doesn’t have a knife hidden in her moccasin?”

He tried to smile, watching as she glanced up at the hawk nearby and softly whistled. The bird took to the air, its impressive wingspan about four feet in his estimation. Without warning, it swooped low and glided to a stop next to the girl's knee. Jerrod struggled and tried to move...to protect her, but only got a disgusted look from her for his efforts. Without a word to him, she leaned toward the large bird and pulled something from her pocket. Faster than a blink, the hawk pecked it from between her fingers.

Mesmerized, his gaze followed her long fingers as she stroked the bird's head. The white feathers down the bird's throat moved as it let out several loud squawks, which she mimicked in a softer tone. A moment later, the bird spread its wings and with a few flaps took to the air again and disappeared through the thick canopy.

She pulled his shirt hem from his pants, and he closed his eyes, too weary to care what she was doing. "Just so you know, this is my only shirt."

"White men never have only one shirt," she said, but he heard the smile in her voice. "Tawodi will bring back my father. You cannot stay here, or you will die." A loud ripping sound, followed by several painful tugs, pulled a low groan from him as she continued to tear his shirt into small strips. She lifted his leg up, and the fiery pain returned with a vengeance, coursing up his thigh and into his abdomen until all he could do was pant. There was another tug, this time a bit gentler. He felt a slight pressure, which seemed to cut off some of the agony screaming through him, but at least the fiery pain didn't reappear.

"I am sorry for that, but if I didn't get something wrapped around your leg, you would have bled to death."

He blinked, trying to clear his fuzzy vision and focused on her pretty face. “Did you say the bird will bring your father?"

She nodded. “Tawodi has been with me since he was a fledgling. His mother threw him from the nest, and I found him. We talk through the chirps and whistles you heard. Wait and see. My father will be here shortly."

“Who are you?"

"I am Water Lily.”

His eyes widened. "You're Indian?"

She nodded and held his gaze, her chin rising. "I am Cherokee."

"It's nice to meet you, Water Lily. You are the first Indian I've met since my ship docked in Savannah several weeks ago. My name is Jerrod Santini."

"You have been in Pine Log several weeks and haven't talked to anyone? You must have hidden in your hotel room because Cherokee are everywhere."

He turned his head and closed his eyes, wondering if the young woman was right in the head or not. After all, she thought she could talk to a bird. He'd seen a few crazy people on his voyages, but they drooled and made weird movements with their bodies. They were obviously not sane. Water Lily, on the other hand... He opened his eyes for a moment and watched the subtle back and forth motion of the branches overhead. His eyes closed again as the breeze turned chilly. The steady chirping of nearby crickets lulled him to sleep.

A hard jerk woke Jerrod up. Immediately, a sharp pain shot through his chest and leg. Hot air warmed the side of his chilled face. A few seconds passed, and he noticed heavy breathing and felt his body rising. Forcing his eyes to open, which seemed unusually difficult to do, he glanced down. Water Lily's thin, yet surprisingly strong arms were holding him up beneath his armpits, and she was dragging him into the forest.

"What are you doing?"

"Something...wrong," she grunted with exertion. "Father is still not here."

"The bird never showed up?"

"Shush."

"Why are you pulling me into the bushes?"

"I need to go get my father. You can't stay out in the open with your injuries, so I'm dragging you into the bushes."

He chuckled. "There has to be a joke in that somewhere, but I hurt too much to think of what it might be."

"I'm sorry, Jerrod." She laid him down beneath the heavy limbs of what looked like a cedar tree, although upside down and blurry, it was hard for him to tell. She unwrapped the cloth strips around his chest and stuffed something green into the wound then rewrapped and tied the material. She repeated her motions with his leg. He felt her fingers tugging at the tight tourniquet wrapped around his thigh, but at least the pain was dulled. His best guess was the lack of blood flow had numbed the pain.

She leaned forward and stared into his eyes, gently moving his head left then right then left again, and nodded. "Your eyes are clear, which is good. Stay here and be quiet. I will make the same noise as before when I was talking with Tawodi so you will know it is me and not those two degenerates returning to finish what they started."

"Go. I'm not going anywhere," Jerrod said, not liking how weak he felt.

Time slowed, or he'd fallen asleep again when a familiar birdcall sounded close by. A moment later, Water Lily peeked through the branches. Another sound caught his attention, and he glanced up to see a man peering at him over her shoulder. Water Lily smiled, and his heart clenched as if a fist squeezed the organ inside his chest. Earlier, he'd thought her sweet and young, but with the wide smile now gracing her face, she was striking and, somehow, seemed older.

"See? I spoke the truth to you. This is my father." She kneeled beside Jerrod.

Jerrod glanced at the man who kneeled opposite her. He looked to be about forty years or so, but his tanned face was already lined with wrinkles. He wore no hat, and his dark hair was cut short. From what he could tell, the man was of average height but stocky, as if he wrestled. His navy wool pants and matching jacket looked new, but his boots were covered in mud.

Her father raised the folded material she had been pressing against the wound and frowned. He turned his dark eyes and met Jerrod's. "My name is Martin. You, my friend, will have a long fight ahead of you, I'm afraid." He patted Jerrod's shoulder and smiled. "But you are lucky it is my Water Lily who will be nursing you back to health." The man stood and brushed leaves from his pant legs. "Do you think you can walk? My friend Strong Eagle has dug out your wagon. If you can hold out long enough to get there, we'll get you home."

Jerrod nodded, unable to hold back his pain-filled moan when the man eased beneath his injured shoulder. No matter how hard he concentrated or tried to will away the growing darkness, the pain was simply too much. A sweet scent, like honeysuckle, filled his nostrils as the girl slipped her arm around his waist, but a wave of dizziness turned everything upside down. From a distance, he heard her shout then everything went black.

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